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Basketball in Lithuania

Basketball, “The second religion of Lithuania”, attracts the largest crowds to arenas and TV screens.

Lithuanian national team matches in the Championships are the most followed. There is a championship every year: biennal European championships (Eurobasket), and once every four years the World championship and the Olympic Games basketball tournament. With a few exceptions Lithuania managed to qualify to all of them in past 20 years so the nation is rarely left without these events that unify it every summer or early September.

From autumn to spring the season of basketball clubs takes place. The two teams that are most followed are “Viniaus Lietuvos rytas” and “Kauno Žalgiris”. These teams, representing two largest cities of Lithuania, are major rivals (at least their fans are) and they both play in at least three leagues: Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL), Baltic Basketball League (BBL) and VTB United League (international league covering Eastern Europe). Usually these two teams also compete in Euroleague, the most prestigious league where the richest teams of many European nations fight for the title.

A group of Žalgiris fans marches accross Kaunas Old Town towards the Kaunas arena where a 2012 Lithuanian basketball final against the arch-rival Lietuvos rytas is to be played. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike the national team, which has never been out of Top 10 at the official FIBA rankings, the Lithuanian clubs are somewhat weaker. Cheaper tickets and less advertisement revenue rarely let them compete against the might of the top Spanish, Israeli and Western European teams in hiring the best basketball players. Therefore the best Lithuanian talent usually plays abroad. Still however with budgets less than 10 million euro per year “Žalgiris” and “Lietuvos rytas” usually performs remarkably well with “Žalgiris” even having been the Euroleague champions in 1999 and “Lietuvos rytas” winning other international trophies.

History of Lithuanian basketball

Basketball was brought to Lithuania as early as 1930s by Pranas Lubinas (known in the USA as Frank Lubin), a Lithuanian emigrant who returned to his homeland from America. Under his coaching Lithuania became the European champions in 1937 and 1939. The Soviet occupation in 1940 destroyed the plan to host 1941 European championship in Lithuania and removed the Lithuanian national team from the basketball geography.

A moment of Lithuania-Hungary game during the 1939 European Basketball championship in Kaunas. Lithuanian team became European champions in 1937, catapulting basketball to the level of national sport and winning the right to host the 1939 event, where they succesfully defended the title.

Basketball remained strong in Lithuania despite the sad political events. In 1980s half of the members of Soviet Union national basketball team were ethnic Lithuanians. The battles between “Kauno Žalgiris” and “CSKA Moscow” team were seen as battles between Lithuanians and Russians and therefore very important.

Once Lithuania regained independence its national basketball team was its best advertisement abroad. The best Lithuanian players managed to join the NBA (e.g. Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Arvydas Sabonis). Many other good basketball players played in Western European leagues as the gap between European and American basketball was dwindling with salaries in Europe sometimes even surpassing NBA ones. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Lithuania lost to the USA national team at more than 40 points. In 1996 Atanta games Lithuanians broke their own record with 22 points (this was the best result ever for any team at the time). In Sydney 2000 Lithuanians lost by mere 2 points as the American NBA stars barely escaped a defeat in semifinals. What was inevitable happened in 2004 Athens when Lithuanians became the first European team to defeat the US “Dream team” and this marked the end of American basketball dominance.

In 2011 Lithuania hosted the European Basketball Championship and this led to a major craze. Many publicity stunts and tributes were dedicated to the championship, including an oratorio, a life-size statue of basketball player made of live flowers, theme-painted trash cans and the restaurant of Vilnius TV Tower turned into "the world's largest basketball net" that glowed in the dark high above the city. In the months leading to the championship 13 balls were dribbled to every town and many villages of Lithuania by hundreds of volunteers (akin to the Olympic fire and reminiscent of centuries-old religious processions). Afterwards these 13 balls were given to the Lithuanian national basketball team (12 players and the coach) during the most expensive live TV show in Lithuanian history.

The dribblers of 13 balls enter Palanga resort after a 11 km march from Kretinga. An Eurobasket 2011 event. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian basketball players continue to be the only Lithuanian professional sportsmen to earn millions of dollars per season.

Where to see basketball in Lithuania

To see basketball in Lithuania your best bet are Vilnius and Kaunas arenas. In winter, later autumn and spring international club matches are held there weekly or more frequently, with Žalgiris and Lietuvos rytas attempting to hold off the foreign teams. Summer is holiday for basketball players and a time for national team events, which typically take place outside Lithuania (except for several friendly matches).

Basketball monument in front of Vilnius arena, home to Lietuvos rytas team. Names of famous Lithuanian players and coaches are inscribed on the monument. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Žalgiris vs. Lietuvos rytas games are the pinnacle of local Lithuanian club basketball. They take place some dozen times a season (in different leagues). It is usually possible to acquire tickets before the match at the arena, but it is better to buy them a in advance to be on the safe side.

Local matches of non-major teams occur in many cities and towns.

You may also visit the basketball museum in Joniškis. There are several monuments to basketball in Lithuania: the one near the Vilnius arena became the symbol of Lithuanian basketball federation (unveiled in 2007). A more modest one was built in 2011 in Švėkšna (Samogitia region).

Two feature documentary films are created on Lithuanian basketball: US-made "The Other Dream Team" depicts how basketball epitomised the Lithuanian fight for independence (1984-1992 period), while "Mes už... Lietuvą" ("We are for... Lithuania") shows the Lithuanian team preparation for Eurobasket 2011.

Inside the Joniškis basketball museum, full of basketball pictures and memorabilia. The screen beyond the ball-shaped door shows the controversial final minute of Munich olympics final USA vs. USSR. Various famous games of the Lithuanian national team may be watched on a big screen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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